Saturday, September 15, 2007

Unseen Images: Walkabout

Walkabout was released in 1971, received great reviews and then disappeared for more than 25 years. It was not even released on VHS until the late nineties and only recently on DVD. When Roger Ebert placed it on his "Great Movies" in 1997 he noted this himself and even now while other Nicholas Roeg films like Don't Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth have become standards of seventies cinema, Walkabout is rarely mentioned. I think I know why.
The original reviews of Walkabout describe it as "beautiful," "magical" and "a delightful family film." It would not be unexpected for the average filmgoer to walk into it expecting an earlier, Australian version of The Black Stallion: Innocent(s) lost in nature, helped out by a mysterious knowing guide (in The Black Stallion, a horse, in Walkabout, an aboriginal boy) and connecting with nature in the process. But this does not describe Walkabout at all. Roger Ebert described it as "deeply pessimistic" and he has a point. Walkabout portrays nature as brutal and harsh, communication between cultures as an obstacle (and one that cannot be overcome) and the world as unblinkingly uncaring. It is in many ways not only a film that could not be made today, but one that would not be accepted even if it were. And that would explain its disappearance and subsequent relegation to obscurity.
The film begins with shots of the Australian urban environment, surrounded by trees and ocean but ignorant of the nature that consumes it. There are exotic trees, but they are conveniently labeled, there is a beautiful ocean but the children swim in a pool instead. And their father sits alone on a bench outside work, then at home stares at his children in the pool with a hollowness that makes him a phantom in his own world.
Shortly after, through a series of panning shots of walls that leads us into the outback, we see the family Volkswagen with father and children it tow, in the middle of the desert. The father has taken his children here for a picnic but seems oddly disconnected from anything going on around him. He studies geological charts as his daughter (Jenny Agutter) sets up the blanket and food and his son plays with his toys and water pistol. Without warning the father begins shooting at his children. His son thinks he is playing and "fires" back with his water pistol. The daughter takes off running, scoops up her brother and drags him to a trench, out of sight of their father. Shortly after, the father burns the car and shoots himself. Son and daughter are alone in the middle of the outback. The story, as it were, begins.
The scenes of the father are never explained. Did he lose his job? Did he do something wrong for which murder/suicide seems to be the only out? It is never stated. And remarkably, in a film utterly and absolutely devoid of sentimentality, the daughter never reacts. She guides her brother as best she can, telling him that Dad went on ahead and they have to catch up. But she never cries. She never reveals emotion of any kind connected with the shocking events that just transpired. It seems odd at first but as the film progresses the recognition of a lack of emotion becomes palpable, then understandable, then accepted. The movie isn't about emotion or cheap sentimentality. It is about survival and communication. The survival part is apparent. The communication aspects are revealed more slowly, cautiously until by the end the viewer is convinced no one in the film has understood anything that anyone else has done, including themselves.
The sister carries her brother to an oasis where they drink muddied water and eat berries from a tree. By morning the water is gone and death seems a certainty. And that is when they spy an aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) on a walkabout. The girl cannot communicate to him that they need water but her brother has no problem. For whatever reason the younger brother seems able to communicate with the aborigine much easier than the sister. The aboriginal boy shows them how to get water from a dry bed and soon they are a threesome, surviving in the outback.
There is not much else in the way of plot on which to elaborate. They wander, kill for food, eat, sleep, swim in the nude and survive. But it is how they do these things, and how Roeg frames his shots that tell the real story of Walkabout. And it is the visual telling of the story that separates it completely from a film of today. A quick look at comments on IMDB shows a woeful misunderstanding of the film by many based on what they think they should be seeing due to film cliches set in stone from the eighties on. It is told differently than it would be today. And those differences are worth noting.
One of the first jarring differences concerns that ubiquitous disclaimer found on movies today that "no animals were harmed during the production of this film." Well, that's out the window. Animals are beaten, gouged, clubbed, shot, stabbed, vivisected and devoured by flies and maggots in scene after scene. There is a pungent scent of death that permeates the whole production. The aboriginal boy (David Gulipilil, a real aborigine with admirable hunting skills) is shown hunting, for real, just as Nanook is shown hunting the walrus in Nanook of the North. Kangaroos and buffalo and reptiles are speared and clubbed, ripped apart and disemboweled. Roeg employs freeze frames and cross-cutting throughout. One such cross-cutting, of the aboriginal boy vivisecting a kangaroo while a butcher in the city is seen chopping up meat in his shop, is the subject of a misguided comment on IMDB bemoaning being hit over the head with a lecture on how bad those urban imperialists are and how natural the aborigines are. There must be an award somewhere for missing the point so badly. But it is understandable, given what is expected from a tale like this told today, in these "kinder, gentler" times. The point made so abundantly clear throughout is that they (the two different cultures) are one and the same, no one worse than the other, just two different cultures performing the same task in decidedly different ways but achieving the same results. There is no judgment in this film of one culture over another whatsoever. Anyone viewing it that way needs to see it again.
It is the wall of communication that Roeg is concerned with, not elevating one culture at the expense of another. Many scenes, such as one where the aboriginal boy sees a settlement but does not lead the brother and sister to it, indicate that he clearly does not understand that they are lost and need to contact someone. Perhaps he thinks they are on a walkabout too. Or when he crosses over a paved road, a clear sign of civilization, and still does not bother to point it out to the girl, who only discovers it later.
Finally, the aboriginal boy performs a courtship dance for the girl that frightens and confuses her. She does not see its grace or gentle entreaties to companionship. He does not see that it frightens her and makes her uneasy. After this scene we come to what is possibly the single most misunderstood scene of the film. The day after the courtship dance, the girl's brother tells her of the paved road and the two of them clean up to travel down it. She wonders where the aboriginal boy has gone, assuming he went back to his tribe, only to have her little brother remark, "He's dead." He takes her to his body, suspended from a tree, and regards it passively and without emotion. And then they travel on.
Many viewers have made the erroneous assumption that the aboriginal boy killed himself, which is not true. Even the entry on Wikipedia states the boy hangs himself after being rejected by the girl, this despite the fact that the most casual glance will show he has not been hanged but is dangling from his arms. Although it is not made abundantly clear in the film (again it is about lack of communication and without the third person narrator of the book upon which it is based there is no real way to communicate it to the audience) the aboriginal boy has been sick, infected with a virus of some kind, and knowing his death imminent has suspended his body from a tree. It is a deeply held belief of the aboriginal tribes of Australia that bodies must be suspended above the ground to allow their spirits to leave the body and not be taken into the ground, or nether regions. Knowing he was dying was also why he performed the courtship dance at that time, believing this lost girl with whom he had no real connection was his last chance. Before he performs the dance he is shown at rest among the skeletal carcases of dead buffalo, a further indication of his impending death.
The custom of bodily suspension is also seen earlier in the film as an aboriginal tribe (perhaps that of the boy's?) is playing around the burned out Volkswagen. We can see they have suspended the rotting corpse of the dead father in a nearby tree.
After the sister and brother head down the road they come across a small mining town with one inhabitant. They knock on his door to ask for help but all he can think to tell is that everything is private property and they can't touch anything. He too, doesn't appear to understand the severity of the situation. The children do not help either. At no point do they explain what has happened, just that they are lost.
We never see them rescued, whisked back to their mother or dealing with the aftermath of the trying events. We simply see the girl, some years later, in the same type of apartment as her parents, looking past her husband as he tells her about his promotion and raise. Her face is emotionless and we see flashbacks to the outback. Does she long for it or miss it? Does she want to be back? Or is she just thinking about it because her life and husband bore her immensely? Again no answers, just images.
Throughout the film Roeg employs freeze-frames and cross-cuts liberally. He even freeze-frames lap dissolves before they have completed their dissolve and let's their image hang over the frames of the following scene like ghosts dancing about the outback. He succeeds admirably in visually detailing a harsh and brutal environment with no emotion, no sentimentality. He observes a tragic lack of communication from all concerned and is content to let the observation be enough. Walkabout is precisely the type of film, made today by a director like Steven Spielberg, that would be ruined with message and gooey sentiment. I can imagine torment and grief played out by the girl after the shooting incident. I can imagine the girl explaining the customs of the aborigines to her younger brother as they weep beneath the dangling body of the aboriginal boy (if they let him die at all). And I can certainly imagine a lump in your throat reunion with the mother, as John Williams' strings rise to a crescendo. The problem is, for too many modern day viewers of Walkabout that's what they're imagining before they see it and when they don't get it, they're disappointed. But if the viewer is not concerned with cliched expectations being met then Walkabout is a richly rewarding experience. And one not soon forgotten.